He’s a man entwined with the history of modern music like no other. From Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones and the Sugarhill Gang, Marshall Chess has guided the course of musical history for over fifty years. And he’s got the stories to prove it.
Clash: What are your earliest memories of Chess?
Marshall Chess: Well, I was born in 1942, and my father went into the record business in 1947 so since I can remember all my memories – I remember Chess from the very beginning. My Father and my Uncle it was there life, it wasn’t just their 9-5 job, it was 24 hour a day job. I guess my earliest memories when I was a child…the predecessor which made chess happen was a black music night club, called the Macamba Lounge in Chicago, and it became a major hangout for early 40s for black jazz musicians.
Chicago had a big black population from world war two, all of these people coming up from the south, millions of them, just over 2 million I think into Chicago. They’d come to this bar after hours and they were exposed to the music – my father took me once and when we walked in we heard gunshots and my father threw me like a football to my uncle who was on the other side of the bar who laid me down on the floor and laid on top of me and ’til this day I can smell that stale alcohol, when I go into a bar or pub I can still smell it.
I grew up around it. Fortunately or unfortunately my dad was a workaholic and you know like every son you wanna be around your father. When I was young he took me fishing occasionally but he was always working. At ten I went on a road trip – he took me off to the South, delivering records, seeing radio people, looking for talent and I sat with him and when I was 13 he let me drive the car in Louisiana – it was always part of my life. You know, if your dad owns a grocery store you know about apples and oranges as you’re growing up but in my case I was just around this music, I didn’t realise it was anything different or special, it was something I was used to and all the characters and people that were involved in it.
“the thing about Chess that’s so amazing is that we had Beethoven, Bach and Mozart on the same label.”
At 13 I had a motorbike and when I wasn’t at school in the summer I started going there to work, so I got to meet all the artists, so I knew them all, I saw a lot of the music being created. But, you know, I can’t discuss it as an adult ‘cos when you see things as a 13 or 14 year old you see them on a different level. I didn’t know what the blues lyrics meant when they were talking about women problems or drinking. But I was around those people and it was a normal and natural part of my life.
I remember the first time I met Muddy Waters who’s probably my favourite Chess artist – was at my house, and this Cadillac car pulls up and this guy walks out and he’s wearing this fluorescent green suit with like two tone cow suit – I’d never seen anything like it – and he came up to me and said “You must be young chess, is your papa at home?”. that was one of my first memories of me and the artists.
I have all these distinct memories. Howling Wolf he was this big 6ft 6 guy, 300/250lbs. I remember looking down at his feet, his feet were so big he used to have to slit the side of his show with a razor ‘cos his feet were so wide. Special memories.
Clash: Muddy Waters saying something like “I just wanna make love to you” in the 50s – that’s quite a big deal isn’t it? How can you explain the impact of those lyrics and the way those songs were sung to people of my generation?
MC: Well, I’ll give you the setting. The best way to understand it is to understand the setting which most people don’t get as they see these guys as old American cold guys which is not how it was. Here you have in the ‘40s World War Two, and around Chicago are all these steel factories – there is tremendous migration of rural, country, black people who were raised without electricity from backgrounds like plantations, almost slavery lever, and they came up to Chicago in their hundreds of thousands and started making money, more money in a week than they would make in 6 or 8 months so they had money to spend.
In the south there were these clubs called juke joints where they played the acoustic blues, they came up to Chicago to make a better life, to make money, like my family came from Poland, they had this relationship, Muddy Walters was driving a truck and so as well as all these people they had money to spend. And they liked to party, they spent money on alcohol there was a tremendous club scene it was the beginning of buying records and records players. Drinking was a big thing, alcohol in Chicago at that time was like Amsterdam with smoking, people would drink and party, especially at the weekend. What drove the atmosphere was live music. These were young people who came up to work in the factories who were going out to party and look for women and look for sex, which was a very much lucid, freer thing with these people.
So the electric sound came about – these were load clubs, just like people go to rock clubs today, there was all these people in dark clubs, late at night looking for sex. The thing about Muddy Waters when he did ‘Hoochie Coochie man’ or ‘I just wanna make love to you’ he was like a young sex symbol just like some young rock band now, and people would scream and women would go crazy – and I was in those clubs when I was young and I got a taste for it. These were steamy places.
That’s how it began and then it just spread out. At the same time this black music was being played on the radio for the first time – not on white stations, it started in America that there were these foreign language stations and anyone could by an hour or two of radio time and they had to sell the adverts. So some black disc jockeys bought some time in Chicago and they started playing the stuff that was hot in the clubs and then boom! A black kid could sell 20 or 30 thousand and that was a hit in the very early blues days.
It evolved from the early acoustic blues to the heavy electric sexy blues that our artist played. That’s what I remember, there was a lot of sex in the music, both lyrically and the drive of it and it kept evolving and we had Chuck Berry and Bo Diddly and it laid the foundation of rock and roll. It’s still the basic bedrock.
Clash: Of course, you can trace a line from the blues to now.
MC: Yeah, a lot of people don’t realise the bedrock foundations, that’s why I keep doing these albums to help people discover the magic. Music is one of the most apparent things that you could call magic that exists, it changes the way you act, the way you feel – but even more so those early chess records before the digital stuff, a guy couldn’t get it wrong, it was like group medication.
Clash: Can you talk about any possible social backlash the music provoked?
MC: When the first blues happened, the Muddy Waters, the Howling Wolf, it was played on a radio that predominantly black people listened to and white people listened to that liked it. There were a couple of very powerful radio stations that covered 14 or 15 states and they played blues late at night and a lot of white people discovered it. There was never really a backlash because these were places that played black music only.
We noticed it in 1955 – we were riding along in the car and all of a sudden we heard Chuck Berry’s first record – ‘Maybellene’ on WIND – the pure white station and my Dad just lit up. My Dad always used to say that if Chuck Berry was white he’d have been bigger than Elvis, it’s because so much American radio didn’t play Chuck because he was black.
There was racism in radio but it slowly faded away with the civil rights movement and with the development of Motown and Soul music, black music crossed cover completely.
Clash: There are frequent allegations of black musicians being financially exploited in those early days of rock’n’roll. What’s your view on this?
MC: I get asked that a lot. I was a kid, but I’ve heard both sides of the story. Some black artists were exploited, some white artists were exploited, it was the birth of an industry. There were no entertainment lawyers then. My father came from Poland, he had a high school education, he ran the business how he though was fair. So, was there anyone sitting there with the figures saying “We’re gonna pay this much” – no, they all ran it in a wild west kind of way and let me tell you what I always say: do you think you could run a business in the black ghetto with black singers coming up from Mississippi, most of them drinking, it was rough, it wasn’t an angelic cooperation, this was right of the street this was rough stuff.
They would come in demanding money, money, money, money – all the time. When my Father dies they found 150,000 dollars worth of slips of paper in his safe of people coming in demanding 50s and 20s and then, twenty years later after he was dead they’d say I didn’t get all my money. You know I’m sure people were exploited, you hear it all the time that some people didn’t make any.
I’ll give you a good example. Some Chess artists are very bitter but…
We founded Rolling Stones Records, made the tongue on the lips logo and then I spent seven years running Rolling Stones Records
I hadn’t seen Chuck Berry in 12 years and about 2 months ago he was playing in New York, he’s on the road again at the age of 82 doing a world tour, and I know him well, I know him since I was a little kid, I was his road manager in my early 20s, I still publish his music outside of the U.S., but I hadn’t seen him for 12 years. So I was backstage and it was an emotional thing for both of us and it brought up memories of my father and my past. I said to him “Chuck, you made my early life so fucking great, ‘Maybellene’ I was 13, our first big, big hit, I got a new bike, when I was 16 I got a car, because we were poor at one time and we spent our money. You made my life great.” He said “Wait a minute, you guys made my life great, I could never have done this without your father and your uncle. And besides you guys had Muddy Waters.”
He is still in awe of Muddy Waters to this day, that was who he came to Chicago to see and said he had a tape and Muddy Waters said take it to Leonard Chess and that’s how we got Chuck Berry. So here you go, this is a guy that was thankful. I just know that there was never any conscious effort to steal money. But I had been around enough to know that some people would steal money and take it all. You have to understand the culture, a lot of song writers would come in and demand $1000 and force you to get that money for a song – instant gratification.
Clash: How did you, and the artists at Chess,view the early 60s British interest in blues music?
MC: It blew us away. I was at the centre of the madness ‘cos I noticed it. I must have been 22 or 23 in the early 60s. We noticed the Stones and The Yardbirds, these early 60s blues bands starting to record our songs. I’m proud to say that the UK was part of that scene – I wanted to get to Europe so I decided to become the International Director! The contract with Decca (who distributed Chess records) had ended so I said, nope it’s time to do new deals around the world.
Pye Records in London, came up with this new system of vans to distribute the records throughout the country via a discount line called ’Marble Arch’. So we did a deal. We did a whole series of discounted prices, bring our artists here, on Ready Steady Go (early TV music show) and eventually put our records out on Chess. When I started working with the Stones and meeting the other bands they told me how a lot of them got exposed to the music via Pye records. It’s one of the best things I ever did.
The thing about Chess that’s so amazing is that we had Beethoven, Bach and Mozart on the same label. One after the other. But we were very particular about who we signed. We had an 8 story building, everything was in that building – you could walk in that door and walk out 2 days later with your record in your hand – if you came in with something hot you could be recorded the next day and released the next week.
The internet is almost like that. Chess was so connected to the street, the fashion. But it’s taken 2 and a half years to get this record out.
Clash: From that early base which your family helped create, the music industry is now a multi million dollar industry. What are your thoughts on the industry today?
MC: I feel it’s the most exciting time in the music industry since my father’s time. The new model of how it’s gonna happen is being developed as we speak, who knows where it’s gonna go.
Clash: You later went on to run Rolling Stones records, can you talk to me about The Stones and that experience.
MC: I always thought Chess records would be mine, I produced a lot of records. My father and uncle decided to sell chess and I was pretty upset but I was to get a nice piece of money to start my own label. And then my father died unexpectedly at 52 years old, with no will, so I didn’t get Chess records or the money I was supposed to get. I was deeply depressed. I had the blues big time.
A music business guy phoned me up and said the stones were finished with Decca and he thought we should try and get them. I didn’t really wanna do anything with this guy but I asked him for Mick’s home number, cos I had met Mick, he had come to Chicago in the 60s to record their second album, and they named a track, ‘2120 South Michigan’, after our address, one of their few instrumentals. So I was in London setting up Chess around Europe. That was the best time in London. It was real swinging London; everyone was having a great time.
I called Mick at home and I said, I heard through the grapevine that you wanted to do something new, I said that I did too, Is there any way we could do something together. So I met him in London at his house on Chaney Walk, and I sat down on his sofa, and he had a long table against the wall stacked full of albums and he stuck on Clifton Schanner – ‘Black Snake Blues’, and while we were talking he was dancing in front of me, across, it was bizarre but great. I then walked down the street to where Keith lived, like two blocks away, and I walked in, and who’s sitting there but Keith with Gram Parsons (founder of country rock). I was in jeans looking scruffy, and Keith said “What’s happened to you?!”
I had produced an album with Muddy Waters called ‘Electric Mud’, a very controversial album, the purists hated it, although in the UK they liked it. The Stones said come with us to our rehearsal studio in East London down in some basement, and there was this poster from ‘Electric Mud’ together. It was an omen. Then a couple of weeks later they called me and said lets do it. We founded Rolling Stones Records, made the tongue on the lips and then I spent 7 years running Rolling Stones records, being the Executive Producer on all those albums, “Sticky Fingers”, “exile On Main Street” , “Black and Blue” “It’s Only Rock and Roll”…
It was an amazing part of my life. I’d just had a marriage that had ended badly and it became my life. I covered the pain of all that and losing Chess, with it. And also discovered other pain killers – it was real sex, drugs and rock and roll for me for almost seven years.
And that’s why I ended it. After 7 years I realised my health was bad, it was too hard working with the Stones and I wasn’t doing my job as good. But it was a great period of my life.
The thing about The Rolling Stones which I’ve never even discussed with them, that was probably the first time that I realised the true impact of Chess Records. I was so intimate with them, true fans, I’d never been around with those kind of people, you know when you make it you are coming from the other side and you never really see it, you don’t realise how amazing culturally it was. I knew less about Chess music before I met them. They would turn me on to tracks I’d never heard!
You don’t ask who your parents are gonna be, and I got born into this Chess Records thing, I got pulled into it, then I had seven years with the Stones and then I was working with Sugar Hill Records, where Hip-hop was invented. I was there when they cut “The Message” “White Lines”, Grandmaster Flash, how that happened is amazing to me – how I could be exposed to the greatest blues, the greatest rock an roll and the greatest hip-hop. It all just came by accident. It’s been a really interesting ride. (Sugar Hill owned Chess for a time), those are the guys playing on this new remix album, it’s gone full circle for me.
‘Chess Moves,’ Marshall’s collaboration with Sugarhill’s Keith Le Blanc re-works some of Chess’ most famous blues releases. It is out now on Chess/Universal.